Nearly 100 of 132 Foreign Hostages Freed, Algeria Says
Nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from a gas plant deep in the Sahara, Algeria's state news service said Friday, three days into a bloody siege with Islamic militants.
The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two American hostages for terror figures jailed in the United States, according to a statement received by a Mauritanian news site that often reports news from North African extremists.
The hostage siege began Wednesday when militants seized hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria's remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant, which is partly operated by BP. Algerian forces retaliated Thursday by storming the plant in an attempted rescue operation that killed at least four hostages and left leaders around the world expressing strong concerns about the hostages' safety.
Algerian special forces resumed negotiating Friday with the militants holed up in the refinery, according to the Algerian news service, which cited a security source.
Friday's report by the government news agency APS said nearly 100 of the 132 hostages had been freed, indicating a potential breakthrough in the siege and reflecting a significant jump in the number of foreign hostages involved. The report, citing a security official, did not mention any casualties in the battles between Algerian forces and the militants. But earlier it had said that 18 militants had been killed.
It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had been killed in the Algerian military operation to free them that began Thursday.
Abual-Baraa Al-Jazairi, who the Nouakchott Mauritanian News Agency (ANI) claims is the head of the commando that kidnapped 41 foreigners in In Amenas in eastern Algeria. (Source: AFP | Getty Images)
In London earlier, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington was working around the clock to ensure the safe return of its citizens caught up in the Algeria crisis. A U.S. plane landed on Friday at an airport near the desert gas plant to evacuate Americans caught in the crisis.
"Regardless of the motivation of the hostage takers, there is no justification, no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people," Panetta said.
Militants on Friday offered to trade two American hostages for two prominent terror figures jailed in the United States: the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The offer, according to a Mauritanian news site that frequently broadcasts dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaeda, came from Moktar Belmoktar, an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently masterminded the operation.
A satellite image of the Amenas Gas Field in Algeria which is jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.
Algeria's government has kept a tight grip on information, but it was clear that the militant assault that began Wednesday with an attempted bus hijacking has killed at least six people from the plant -- and perhaps many more.
Workers kidnapped by the militants came from around the world -- Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians. Leaders on Friday expressed strong concerns about how Algeria was handing the situation and its apparent reluctance to communicate.
British Prime Minister David Cameron went before the House of Commons on Friday to provide an update, seeming frustrated that Britain was not told about the military operation despite having "urged we be consulted."
Terrorized hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the Ain Amenas plant, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algiers, the capital. BP said it had begun to evacuate employees from Algeria.
"This is a large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages," Cameron said. He told lawmakers the situation remained fluid and dangerous, saying "part of the threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, a threat still remains in another part."
Algeria's army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.
The U.S. government sent an unarmed surveillance drone to the site, near the border with Libya, but it could do little more than watch Thursday's military intervention. British intelligence and security officials were on the ground in Algeria's capital but were not at the installation, said a British official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
A U.S. official said while some Americans escaped, other Americans were either still held or unaccounted for.
El Mokhtar Ould Sidi, editor of the Mauritanian news site ANI, said several calls on Thursday came from the kidnappers themselves giving their demands and describing the situation.
"They were clearly in a situation of war, the spokesman who contacted us was giving orders to his colleagues and you could hear the sounds of war in the background.... He threatened to kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces tried to liberate them," he said.
With the standoff entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.
Militants claimed 35 hostages died when the military helicopters opened fire as they were transporting hostages from the living quarters to the main factory area where other workers were being held.
The group -- led by a Mali-based al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Masked Brigade -- suffered losses in Thursday's military assault -- but garnered a global audience.
The militants made it clear that their attack was in revenge for the French intervention against Islamists who have taken over large parts of neighboring Mali. France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups in Mali and failed to persuade many Western allies to join in the actual combat.
Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.
The official Algerian news agency said four hostages were killed in Thursday's operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died Wednesday in the initial militant ambush on a bus ferrying foreign workers to an airport. Citing hospital officials, it said six Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
APS said some 600 local workers were safely freed in the raid -- but many of those were reportedly released the day before by the militants themselves.
One Irish hostage managed to escape: electrician Stephen McFaul, who'd worked in North Africa's oil and natural gas fields off and on for 15 years. His family said the militants let hostages call their families to press the kidnappers' demands.
"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al-Qaeda were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us," said his mother, Marie.
Dylan, McFaul's 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television. "I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home," he said.
The crisis posed a serious dilemma for Paris and its allies as French troops attacked the hostage-takers' al-Qaeda allies in neighboring Mali. It left question marks over the ability of OPEC-member Algeria to protect vital energy resources and strained its relations with Western powers.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, a source told Reuters. Eight dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, as well as of perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear.
Some 600 local Algerian workers, less well guarded, survived. Fourteen Japanese were among those still unaccounted for by the early hours of Friday, their Japanese employer said.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has canceled part of his trip in Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip since taking office, and is considering flying home early due to the hostage crisis, Japan's top government spokesman said on Friday.
"The action of Algerian forces was regrettable," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, adding Tokyo had not been informed of the operation in advance.
The overall commander, Algerian officials said, was Belmokhtar, a veteran of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s. He appears not to have been present and has now risen in stature among a host of Saharan Islamists, flush with arms and fighters from chaotic Libya, whom Western powers fear could spread violence far beyond the desert.
Algeria's government spokesman made clear the leadership in Algiers remains implacably at odds with Islamist guerrillas who remain at large in the south years after the civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Communication Minister Mohamed Said repeated their refusal ever to negotiate with hostage-takers.
"We say that in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism," he told APS news agency.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions, over the value of security measures that are outwardly draconian.
Foreign firms were pulling nonessential staff out of the country, which has recovered stability only in recent years and whose ruling establishment, heirs to fighters who ended French rule 50 years ago, has resisted demands for reform and political freedoms of the kind that swept North Africa in the Arab Spring.
"The embarrassment for the government is great," said Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at New York's St John's University. "The heart of Algeria's economy is in the south. where the oil and gas fields are. For this group to have attacked there, in spite of tremendous security, is remarkable.
Algiers, whose leaders have long had frosty relations with the former colonial power France and other Western countries,may have some explaining to do over its tactics in putting an end to a hostage crisis whose scale was comparable to few in recent decades bar those involving Chechen militants in Russia.
Government spokesman Said sounded unapologetic, however:
"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighboring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," he told state news agency APS, which said some 600 local workers were freed.